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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

Populism Finds the Way: Trump, Pollsters and the People’s Choice

Monday 26 December 2016


by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

In the aftermath of the American presidential elections, streets in several cities of America rocked with the slogan “Not My President”. This sloganeering rose against a person who went into election (and won the same) with a campaign catchphrase ‘Make America Great Again’. The protestors termed his win ‘unusual’, ‘unexpected’ and ‘unconventional’ and feared the ways he would realise his dream of making America great again! Mr Donald John Trump, a real estate mogul, businessman, pageant owner and a billionaire reality TV star is the new President of United States of America. Defeating all pollsters’ predictions, crushing the media agenda and undermining the popular votes, he surged to victory and set a new paradigm of the American character of the presidential candidate. His win should be looked at with a deeper insight and meaning crossing beyond the Democratic and Republican Party politics.

The United States of America, a nation metaphorically known as a melting pot owing to its multicultural character, is again standing at the crossroads. Trump devised a divisive campaign strategy by making division clear among rural-urban, native-immigrants, whites-blacks, and poor-rich. On the other hand, the minorities’ horse symbolising ‘status-quo’ and ‘American-dream’ lost the race against all popular expectations. Is this a new America?

The Old Rules of American Politics

This is a rare instance in the political history of America that a person with no political and military background has been chosen as the head of the ‘Oval Office’. President Trump has negligible experience in active politics as against his opponent Hillary Clinton, who has been in active politics since the last 40 years holding important positions like the Secretary of State, Senator and the First Lady of the United States. This unequivocally is the first rule that Trump interfered with.

Last year in July, several US news websites picked up a story quoting a former Texas Governor, Rick Perry, that ‘Donald Trump is the modern day incarnation of the Know-Nothing movement’. Perry supposedly based this analogical state-ment on Trump’s idea of deporting all immigrants and to build a massive wall at the Mexican border. Historically speaking, xeno-phobia and racism are not new to American presidential politics. The movement against Catholics and German immigrants to pull them out from the political affairs of the United States in the 1940s in the form of Know-Nothings also supported the same theme of ‘True Americans’ and was well accepted by a majority of the middle working class of the United States as a solution to their job and position struggle. The supporter of this movement, the Know Nothing party, adopted the American party as its official name in 1954. In 1956, the Know-Nothings chose former President Millard Fillmore as their nominee, but he lost the election by just winning around 21 per cent of votes. (Patrick, Pious and Ritchie, 2001)

James B. Weaver, a populist presidential candidate in the 1892 presidential election, lost the election by scoring about eight per cent of the votes. (Tarr and Benenson, 2012) Similarly another populist leader, William Jennings Bryan, one of the dominant forces in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, stood three times as the presidential candidate in the 1890, 1896, and 1908 elections and lost every time. His biographer Michael Kazin recounted: “William Jennings Bryan was the first leader of a major party to argue for permanently expanding the power of the federal government to serve the welfare of ordinary Americans (Kazin, 2006).” Huey Pierce Long Jr., a flamboyant populist of early twentieth century America, was considered to be a strong contender against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. However, he was assassinated on September 10, 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt called him one of the most dangerous men in America, with ‘good reason’.

These facts tell a story of the failure of the populist leadership in the American presidential elections. In the light of these facts a New York Times columnist, David Brooks, rightly observed that making the history of populism in America is generally a history of defeat. A majority of voters reject their ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. But this thesis too is proven wrong in the case of Donald Trump. He succeeded in persuading a majority of American voters that he would devise a mechanism whereby ordinary citizens would prevail over the privileged elite. He convinced Americans that he would find solutions to the problems like stagnating wages, shrinking numbers of good jobs, a political and media culture that treated them as though they were aliens in their own country. This election result shows that around 49 per cent of the American voters had been waiting for someone like Trump to say to them: “I hear you, and I will make things right.”

How was the leadership of Mr Trump romanticised by the common Americans? What kind of a sense of control and understanding of their environment was achieved by the American voters by attributing causality to a leader like Trump? The questions regarding Trump’s presidential character, personality and leader-ship quality in the frame of Max Weber’s (1968) ‘charismatic’ conception, Theodore Millon’s (1990) ‘personality model’ and Simonton’s (1988) ‘dimension of presidential style’ could be answered differently by political and social scientists from varying vantage points in coming times. However, the already available voluminous literature on the US presidential personality, leadership and character suggests that American voters commonly wanted a President who could and did get things done, but in a way that was consistent with the personal integrity they expected. And, while Americans wanted competence, they also wanted a President who embodied their best ideals and those of the country—a person of public stature and reputation who they could be justifiably proud of whether they fully agree with him or not. (Renshon, 1998)

America No More a Melting Pot

America has traditionally been referred to as a ‘melting pot,’ welcoming people from many different countries, races and religions, all hoping to find freedom, new opportunities and a better way of life—the American Dream. The American history also began with waves of immigrants, bringing their own cultures and traditions to a vast new country. It is this diversity that makes America what it is today and creates the challenges it faces. The result of the American elections 2016 has strengthened the claim that despite the efforts for a more diverse, liberal and integrated society, America is transforming into a society divided in compartments and the great American culture is becoming more ‘selective’. The majority-minority break-up as White and Black Americans, which was very well cashed in these elections by the Republicans, substantiates that this selective American culture is now subject to more changes in Trump’s regime.

The conception that being American is not an ethnicity, but a nationality and so shouldn’t be coupled with ethnicity or race, has now shifted towards the new concept of ‘true Americans’. The immigrants, who were mistaken in thinking that all the citizens of the United States are Americans, are now in an identity crisis and are trying to understand a dichotomy between the Americans of this and that side of the racial and ethnic polarities. ‘American’ as a broad, elusive term will now narrow down towards a more exclusive and selective term which will have its own definition of America as a culture and a country and will have the right to determine what is ‘un-American’.

Pollsters’ Poor Show

George Gallup said: “If democracy is about the will of the people, shouldn’t someone find out what that will is?” The saying was proved wrong again this time. The historical analysis of the US election data since 1948, researching technologies, and sophisticated prediction of the result of presidential politics—all were an off-ramp away from what actually happened. Pollsters like Nate Silver, Gallup and websites like Real Clear Politics (RCP), Huffington Post, New York Times failed in their pre-poll forecast as they were not able to understand and register the pulse of a large portion of the American electorate who polarised on the issue of nativity and nationalism. The pollsters failed to present a reality based political scenario and to capture the public opinion accurately and a lot of misinterpretations of polls took place every-where thus hypothetically projecting Hillary Clinton’s greater chance to win the election. The poll projections were not able to estimate the strength of Trump’s vote and the movement he built towards his side. It was rightly said that politics is not just about numbers and data cannot capture human conditions even though the method of data collection could be scientific and methodological. Although Gallup himself has always argued that the pre-election polls do not measure the outcome of an election; they only measure who is ahead during an election campaign at the time of interviewing the electorates chosen as samples for the study. The pre-poll predictions do not answer the question “who will win?” but the question “who was ahead when the pollsters last looked?” On the contrary, a study conducted by Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Berbard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet on the presidential election of 1944 argued that the information about who is ahead in elections helps both politicians in office and out of office in their further planning and future decision about the transition of governments and thus is critical for any democracy. It further causes crisis for individuals, upheavals for institutions, and strain on the whole democratic system. Thus publishing pre-election polls is a quite respon-sible affair and needs absolute preparation. (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet, 1944)

The pollsters’ poor show in the 2016 US election made it clear that the voters’ choices were not clearly measured on the basis of their understanding of political issues and the stands of their favourite candidates on issues especially when they are in conflict with the voters’ own views. The ‘Columbia studies’ and the ‘Michigan Model’ of electoral studies conducted in the 1960s have very clearly evidenced that when-ever there will be more talk than debate, the poll results will show a shock of disagreement, adjustment and change in the political establishments and that is something which the pollsters have to understand to survive in the business. (Keysser, 2000) They have to under-stand that the influence of various psychological, sociological and political factors on the determination of the vote (Cambell and Khan, 1952) and on the loyalties of American voters which can at any time shift the election outcomes and bring a hardliner like Trump into office on the basis of issue positions rather than the candidates’ personal qualities and party identification.

A Drum Beaters’ Defeat 

Besides pollsters, the US news media was another stakeholder in the prediction business of US presidential elections. But, what a miss, mess and a poor show it was! The big data, dazzling technology and sophisticated newsrooms could not help them at all. A majority of the US news media steered public opinion toward Hillary Clinton and emphatically claimed that she’d got this. The Huffington Post had assured its readers that Clinton had a 98 per cent chance of winning while the New York Times gave her an 85 per cent chance of winning. In another instance, on October 5, BBC News reported: “USA Today has broken with tradition for the first time in its 34-year history and issued a scathing editorial against Republican nominee Donald Trump, described him as a ‘serial lair’ who ‘traffics in prejudice’ and has ‘coarsened the national dialogue’.” The USA Today editorial board wrote: “This year, one of the candidates—Republican nominee Donald Trump—is, by unanimous consensus of the Editorial Board, unfit for the Presidency.” Endorsement of presidential candidates by the US news media is not a new practice in the USA. But the way the media played their part in this election have deeper and wider meaning than endorsement. Doesn’t it indicate towards a fact that there is something fundamentally broken in US journalism? The arrays of media houses and eminent journalists miserably failed to gauge the popular will. They failed to present a reality-based political scenario. There was a disconnect from ground realities. They underestimated the strength of Trump’s vote. Therefore Trump’s victory should be also marked as a victory of the American people over the news media establishment.

The right to vote as a process of selecting governments is fundamental to any democracy as it ensures the rule of the people. In The Third Wave, Samuel P. Huntington explains why elections are the essence of democracy. He argued that even if a government elected by the people through elections may be inefficient, corrupt, shortsighted, and irresponsible and may be dominated by special interests, and may not be able to frame policies for public good, even thenit may not be termed as undemocratic. It can be an undesirable government. (Hun-tington, 1993) The same is the case of the newly elected American President Donald Trump. Through an electoral process, the people of the United States have elected their new President. Trump’s election as the President has its own logic, its own justification, and is, in general, a success for the Republicans. The newly elected government’s ideals, objectives and process of administration may not be in the same line of the mechanics of the American federal system as it was in the past 100 years. But one thing which stunned the political and social scientists across the globe is the major shift that has taken place in the ‘good political habits’ of American voters. The carefully crafted intangible benefits of psychological associations along with being nationalist, true-American, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and pro-racist image of Donald Trump definitely sounds different in the context of the multi-hued, socio-politico and cultural idea of America and American democracy and this will decide how and what America will be in future.


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Huntington, S. (1993), The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Kazin, M. (2006), A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan



Keysser, A. (2000), The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, Basic Books.

Lazarsfeld, P.F., Berelson, B., and Gaudet, H. (1944), The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up his Mind in a Presidential Campaign, New York: Columbia University Press.

Millon, T. (1990), Toward a new Personlogy: An Evolutionary Model, New York: Wiley.

Patrick, J. J., Pious, M. R. and Ritchie, A. D. (2001), The Oxford Guide to the United States Government, New York: Oxford University Press.

Renshon, A.S. (1998), The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates, New York: Routledge.

Simonton, D.K. (1988), ‘Presidential Style: Personality, Biography, and Performance’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55 (6): 928-936.

Tarr, D. and Benenson, Bob (2012), Elections A to Z, Los Angeles: Sage.

Weber, M. and Eisenstadt, S.N. (1968), Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building: Selected Papers, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Sandeep Sharma is presently doing his Ph.D from the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh. Before shifting to academics, he worked with Dainik Bhaskar, the Hindi daily, as a Sub-Editor.

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